There is a growing narrative that Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott are vying for the same position at Liverpool, but it’s not necessarily one or the other.
A football season tells a story. There is a beginning, a middle and an end for supporters to either enjoy or endure depending on the fortunes of their team.
Those of a red persuasion hope the tale of 2021/22 has a happy ending in the shape of four trophies.
Optimistic? Certainly. Farfetched? Probably. Yet us Kopites have always favoured the fantasy genre.
Whatever Liverpool’s eventual story arc, it’s one that has thrown up a fascinating sub-plot all of its own.
Ours is a united squad, with a team spirit not seen at Anfield in the Premier League era. It’s a togetherness fostered by Jurgen Klopp and one very much evidenced in the wake of the League Cup final triumph at Wembley.
Rumour has it Kostas Tsimikas still hasn’t been to bed…
But friends can also become rivals when competing for a starting berth or – if injuries allow – simply a place on the bench.
Comparing players simply because they play the same position is nothing new. We all remember the initially amusing but ultimately tiresome debates over Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho.
Go back further and fans even went to war for one of David Thompson or Steven Gerrard. Yes, really.
While such head-to-heads make for good terrace talk and Twitter tirades alike, the choice is rarely binary.
In the case of Jones and Elliott, the pair have already clocked up almost 30 appearances between them this term, despite both suffering long-term injuries.
Yet you can’t help but feel their futures are somehow linked.
Jones – two years Elliott’s senior – made his breakthrough earlier. In many ways his integration into the first team was fast-tracked by the injury crisis of last season.
In a year where Liverpool toiled, the youngster gave a good account of himself, though it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed that our late surge for the top four coincided with his game time declining.
Throughout this period Elliott was having his own coming-of-age season in the Championship, where he starred for Blackburn.
Seven goals and 11 assists earned him a nomination for EFL Young Player of the Season and an invitation to return to Ewood Park for a hero’s welcome in January.
Many anticipated another loan would follow, but pre-season appeared to mark a turning point for the player and, by extension, Jones too.
An effusive character, Elliott returned to the AXA Training Centre early, giving interviews to LFCTV while team-mates soaked up the last of the summer sun.
His attitude, combined with an obvious natural ability, had always impressed Klopp.
However, his performances across those handful of friendlies appeared to convince the manager he could make a difference in the short- as well as long-term.
This wouldn’t ordinarily have presented an issue for Jones but for one of the key takeaways from pre-season…the reinvention of Elliott as a midfielder.
Up to that stage the teenager had almost always shone in an attacking position. Mo Salah’s position to be exact.
A rethink on this front can be explained in several ways.
Firstly, there is Salah himself – the stiffest of competition. Then there is the emergence of Kaide Gordon, a second ‘star boy’ competing for that role whose path Liverpool will not want to block.
Another consideration may have been Elliott’s pace – or lack of. He’s by no means slow but not lightening quick in the vain of Salah or Sadio Mane, both of whose incisive runs have re-defined the role of the wide forward.
Dropping him deeper may have been the result of such analysis. More likely, however, Klopp simply could not hold him back any longer.
Even so, few of us expected Elliott to feature so early nor so prominently. He impressed in the first match back at a capacity Anfield as the Reds ran out 2-0 victors against Burnley.
Despite that showing, many were shocked and perhaps concerned to see him line up in a top-of-the-table clash against Chelsea a week later.
On a generally frustrating afternoon, he more than held his own.
As Reds began to talk up the Premier League’s newest starlet, Jones could only watch on enviously.
He’d suffered concussion in the final pre-season game against Osasuna and effectively lost his place to someone he’d captained in the under-23s. He wouldn’t feature himself until late September.
By that time, of course, Elliott’s momentum had been cruelly curtailed. The horror injury sustained at Elland Road devasted supporters and manager alike. Klopp has since admitted he was practically inconsolable.
Even in the face of such misfortune, however, Elliott showed maturity beyond his years. Rather than let the prospect of a long lay-off affect him, he showed great positivity and professionalism, actually lifting the mood of his team-mates in the process.
The old adage of opportunity coming in the face of adversity, though, definitely rang true for Jones.
Here was a chance to remind us of his potential. He certainly went about it the right way, notching four assists as he ran the show in Porto, this after lashing home a first of the season against Brentford.
He was also on the pitch for 75 minutes as Liverpool humiliated United at Old Trafford.
With talk of an England callup growing ever louder, he too was stopped in his tracks by a freak eye injury. What was only described as an ‘accidental collision’ would eventually sideline him for two months.
As fate would have it both players would return within weeks of each other. And since such time there has been a clamour for everyone, Klopp included, to pick a side.
But need it be so cut and dried? Are Jones and Elliott competing for the same position, or could they actually play together?
In theory, yes.
It’s important to note they tend to line up either side of a defensive midfielder – namely Fabinho. This means Elliott is competing with Jordan Henderson on the right, and Jones with one of Thiago or Naby Keita on the left.
Yet because of their playing styles, it’s easy to see why so many believe it’s one from two, not both. This opinion was reinforced when Klopp excluded Jones from three consecutive matchday squads in early February – this as Elliott was re-introduced.
His exile led many to write off the player completely, which is frankly absurd. Whatever you think of their respective trajectories, there is little to separate the pair right now.
Both have excellent close control and an eye for a pass. Jones is more likely to commit players but Elliott is arguably the more skilful of the two and fashions chances others don’t see.
Crucially, both have seemingly mastered our pressing style and pressure opponents relentlessly in the hunt of possession. This is rule 101 for a Klopp midfielder.
And let’s not forget what an achievement it is for any youngsters to break into this Liverpool side, where the performance levels are so consistently high. This is a testament to their mentalities and the academy itself.
Ironically, as supporters nailed their colours to the mast, both players were excluded from the matchday squad for the League Cup final. This was particularly harsh on Jones, who had been excellent in the semi-final defeat of Arsenal.
His disappointment would hardly have been tempered by the sight of Elliott being given a late callup due to a Thiago injury and going on to feature in the game and score a decisive penalty in the shootout.
All the while Klopp gets that kind of reaction, he and his team will benefit.
But keeping someone like Jones satisfied with a bit-part role will be difficult. Here is a player with such self-belief he felt he should be starting in a title-winning side who recorded 26 wins out of their first 27 games that season.
His best bet might be to remodel himself slightly – a process that could already be underway.
Look back on Jones’ exploits in Liverpool’s youth teams and he was a level above, dancing around players and curling unstoppable efforts into top corners. The definition of a playmaker.
His performances in the first team however, particularly since last season, are far more controlled.
You get the impression Klopp and Pep Lijnders are coaching him to become a more responsible, team player in the mould of Gini Wijnaldum, who often had to curb his own attacking instincts that were so readily on display for the Netherlands.
Jones the showman may take umbrage with becoming a cog in a machine, but much of Liverpool’s recent success has been down to a midfield trio that is more workmanlike than dazzling.
If there is to be a wild card, that looks increasingly like it’s going to be Elliott. In other words, he’s best fighting another battle.
Harking back to the aforementioned semi-final display at the Emirates, that appears to be a fight he can win. In a pressured game, on a big stage, Jones looked every bit the senior pro.
Granted, he slowed the play down at times and could be accused of chewing the ball on occasion, but who’s to say that wasn’t by design or instruction?
In short, if both players continue to develop and moreover mature, there is no reason why they can’t feature in the same squad and indeed team for years to come.
Many have been too quick to write off the older of the two – who only turned 21 in January – when in fact the only loser in the Jones-Elliott debate is likely to be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
With the latter and James Milner likely to depart in the summer, expect both Jones and Elliott to take the next step together.